The Gateway Senior Invitational rarely lacks for drama.
Last year, it took a one-hole sudden-death playoff for Sam Till Jr., of Fort Wayne, Ind., to claim victory. He defeated Bob Kearney, of Houston, after two-and-a-half inches of rain and snow saturated the golf course, resulting in the tournament being shortened from 54 to 36 holes. The only playable hole, the par-4 10th, was the site of Till’s birdie finish.
In 2011, O. Gordon Brewer, of Huntingdon Valley, Pa., a two-time U.S. Senior Amateur winner (1994, ’96), required four playoff holes to win over Gary Strickfaden, from Southern Pines, N.C.
If history is a predictor, the 2017 event, to be played Jan. 8-10, should create its own style of excitement.
Beginning this year, the Gateway Senior Invitational will include a Legends division (age 70 and above), in addition to the Senior (ages 55-64) and Super Senior (ages 65-69) divisions. The Legends division was decided upon as a result of a growing number of players who remain competitive and continue to support the event. This year’s field includes 37 Seniors, 39 Super Seniors and 27 Legends.
“This is the 28th year for the tournament,” said Brian Hart, PGA, head golf professional at Gateway Golf & Country Club, a private member-owned facility in Fort Myers, Fla. “In my twelve years here, I’ve gotten to know a lot of accomplished senior amateurs from throughout the country.”
Competitors will find that the Gateway Golf & Country Club logo is a griffin, a mythical creature with the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion. This fabled monster, a heroic symbol, is said to guard the gates of the club and keep a watchful eye on all who enter.
Once past the gate, the field of top amateurs will encounter the 18-hole, par-72 Tom Fazio-designed golf course, which has hosted this annual tournament since the facility opened in 1989. The course also was the site of the 1990 and ’91 Ben Hogan Tour’s Gateway Open, as well as numerous USGA qualifiers and PGA chapter and section events. The layout, which plays 7,047 yards from the longest tees with a course rating of 74.4 and a slope rating of 137, features Tifdwarf Bermuda grass greens and Bermuda grass fairways.
More than 100 Cape Cod-style bunkers highlight the course, although many enhance the mystery of this intriguing Fazio design without actually coming into play.
During the summer of 2013, Fazio returned to oversee improvements, including re-grassing the course with Celebration Bermuda and upgrading the greens with TifEagle hybrid turf. The greens were brought back to their original front-to-back depth. Earlier renovations took place in 1996 and 2005.
The 2013 renovation included golf-course architect Ron Garl’s complete redesign of the practice facility.
“Players like the renovation,” Hart said. “They say our practice facility is one of the best you will ever find.”
The 20-acre practice area, which Garl and the club refer to as a “Golf Improvement Center,” features a double-sided range, multiple short-game areas, a putting green similar to those found on the course, and two practice holes: a par 3 and a par 4.
“No matter what your handicap is,” Garl said, “seventy percent of shots are one hundred yards and in. We needed to develop a driving range where you can concentrate on those areas.”
The “Ron Garl Scoring Zone” breaks the short game into two parts: 50 yards and under to the cup – i.e., the chipping zone; and the “Ron Garl Scoring V” – targets from 50 to 90 yards. The targets are five round greens, lined up on each side of the range.
“This kind of practice teaches you muscle memory,” said Garl, “because all seniors have the ability to hit those distances accurately. They know how to get it up and down; that’s how they can catch up with everyone else.
“When you get it up and down, it gives you confidence.”
Confidence will come into play in another respect, too, at the 2017 Gateway Senior Invitational.
Last year, Gateway Golf & Country Club converted the nomenclature of its teeing system in an effort to eliminate the stigma of gender-specific tee colors. The former color-coded tees now are referred to by Roman numerals. Of the six sets of tees in place for club members, three will be in use at this year’s Gateway Senior Invitational. Senior division players will play from the II tee, Super Seniors from the III tee and Legends from the IV tee.
The public is welcome, free of charge, to watch the action.
Hart, who was an assistant when he first began helping run the tournament, explained some of the reasons why a private club such as Gateway is proud to host a major senior amateur event.
The first, of course, is to help promote the growth of golf. Other advantages include “exposure of our facility to players who either might become members themselves or tell others about it, and as a revenue source.”
This year’s tournament was filled within four days with players from around the country, Hart said, with a waiting list of 30.
Memorable in Hart’s mind is the 2012 Gateway Senior Invitational. That year, Dick Pfeil, of Naples, Fla., shot a 63 in a nine-birdie, no-bogey final round, overcoming a six-shot deficit on his path to victory. His best score ever before that day had been a 65.
“That was the lowest score I’ve ever seen in our event,” said Hart. “It stands as the tournament record in my twelve years here.”
While it is impossible to predict the nature of the drama in store for the 2017 Gateway Senior Invitational, it seems certain that the excitement will add to this tournament’s storied history.
–Sally J. Sportsman, Senior Golf Insider firstname.lastname@example.org